New Delhi: Christelle
Gourdine, a French national of Guadeloupean and Indian origin, has
been fascinated by her Indian roots for many years. But she is
surprised and saddened that not many know about the Caribbean
island of Guadeloupe's Indian connection.
Christelle was born in France.
"People (in France) are surprised when I reply that I am from
Guadeloupe. They have never heard about those Indian workers who
came to save the colonies after slavery was abolished. How could
they know if we don't know from where we are and don't tell them
proudly our story? How could they know if, even in India, people
don't know about us?" Christelle says.
Guadeloupe is a group of islands in the Caribbean and is an
overseas territory of France. Christelle's parents were part of
the 55,000-strong Indian community in Guadeloupe - just over 10
percent of the population - till they moved to mainland France.
Christelle, who works with a major French bank, is currently
writing a book to explain the Indian presence in Guadeloupe and to
relate their links with India.
For her, it was the sound of the drums - the dholaks and nagaras -
being played during festivities in Guadeloupe that triggered her
interest and made her aware of her Indian origins.
She visited India for the first time six years ago and has been
back 14 times since then. Her last trip took her to places like
Mumbai, Mysore, cities in Gujarat, Varanasi and Delhi to try and
find out more about her ancestors.
Christelle travelled for five months in India to find emigration
documents and her village of origin. She had done research in
Guadeloupe on her family tree but could not find the immigration
documents of her ancestors. Much of the archival material of that
period was lost or destroyed by the authorities.
"I was deeply disappointed when I could not find any links to my
ancestors in India despite travelling to so many places. Finally,
I went to Varanasi to do a last ritual for my ancestors. But when
I took a dip in the Ganga, I had an intensely emotional moment -
it changed the way I felt.
"I decided to write a book about my ancestry, my search and the
story about Indians in Guadeloupe. It is a story that deserves to
be written so that we know about our heritage," Christelle
After slavery was abolished in French territories in 1848, the
French planters in Guadeloupe decided to import workers from India
after the good results they had seen in Reunion Island, the French
territory in the Indian Ocean. From 1854 to 1889, 42,326 Indian
workers were taken in 93 ships to Guadeloupe.
Return from Guadeloupe was practically impossible. The French
authorities felt it was too expensive to ship the workers back and
so used various means to prevent their return.
Indians were forced to give up their culture, tradition, language
as well as their religion. Many resisted and tried to maintain
their rituals and traditions in secret. The Indian workers were
not well accepted by the rest of the population and could become
French citizens only in 1923 after a long political struggle.
"It is only in 2004 that France heard a little bit about us when
Guadeloupe organised a series of events to commemorate 150 years
of Indian presence. But more than that, it was an opportunity for
Guadeloupean people to know more about this community, also for
Indians to know more about their culture.
"In the past, there was a kind of shame, a feeling of inferiority
among the Indian people. What they could see about India on TV
could not make them feel proud. But after a few great Bollywood
movies, the success of Lakshmi Mittal with Arcelor (Mittal Steel's
acquisition of French steel giant Acelor), it has changed. There
is a pride, there is a feel of belonging," explains Christelle.
"From visiting my family in Guadeloupe regularly since childhood,
I am aware of the connection to India. I felt French, Guadeloupean
and Indian. I am proud to have Indian origins."
But now Christelle feels an urgent need to be officially
recognised as a Person of Indian Origin (PIO). She has made a
special request to the Indian government to accept other documents
like marriage and death certificates to prove her ancestors'
Christelle is hopeful of a positive response as she is keen on
"recognition of my Indian origins".
(Shubha Singh can be contacted at email@example.com)